B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
BARBARA KENNEDY HAS never forgotten the summer day in 1977 that changed her life. Kennedy already had a long history: She was 66 years old, a widow, the mother of three grown sons and an artist slowly establishing her reputation. But on that memorable day, as she puts it, she fell in love. In love with handmade paper.
"I saw handmade paper in a gallery in San Francisco," says Kennedy, now 84 years old. Her eyes shine at the memory as she sits among her brilliantly colored pastel-and-paper works at Tohono Chul Park Gallery. She searches for the words to describe the sensuous qualities of the paper that attracted her. "It was mostly white. It was texture. It was a presence that other paper doesn't have."
That close encounter with paper forever altered Kennedy's work as an artist. She taught herself how to make it--"There was a poor article in a poor magazine, American Artist. They didn't really know how to do it"--but it was enough to get her started. Eventually she trained with expert papermakers around the country, and even traveled to Japan to study.
"I was the only one making paper for a long time in Tucson, the only one teaching," Kennedy says.
She developed a unique style, using bits of her hand-made, hand-dyed paper as a painter would use paint. Her works have all the richness of oil colors and they hang on the wall like paintings, but they veer off the surface into a third dimension, like low-relief sculpture. The thick papers are twisted and wrapped into place, and their organic shapes are never violated by scissors.
"I don't cut," she says firmly.
The paper creations quickly won Kennedy showings in galleries around town. "Desert Calligraphy," an abstract, monochromatic piece in tans, got into the 1980 Tucson Museum of Art Biennial and ended up in the museum's permanent collection. She capped off years of exhibiting in such spaces as Pima Community College, Dinnerware and Obsidian with a one-woman show at the Temple Gallery a few seasons back. The University of Arizona Museum of Art bought one of the pieces from the Temple show. Right now, besides the recent work in her solo show at Tohono Chul, she has a pastel-and-paper piece in the current TMA Biennial of Arizona artists.
"Barbara's art works on many levels," says Terry Etherton, the owner of Etherton Gallery, who curates the shows at the Temple. "It has an immediate appeal. It's very beautiful, very decorative, but it has more substance to it than first meets the eye. Her sense of craft is wonderful. Barbara has stuck with it a long time, as a real artist does."
It's true that Kennedy has worked diligently at her art for years, but she came to it relatively late in life. She doesn't remember getting any encouragement to do art as a child, when she was growing up in Pittsfield, Mass., perhaps because her own mother, a gifted needleworker, never thought of what she did as art.
"Mother was an artist," Kennedy says. "She just did everything with a needle...She taught me she wasn't an artist, but she did beautiful work."
Kennedy studied art history at Smith College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1935. After that came marriage to Jim Kennedy, a pediatrician, and the three boys. The family moved around a bit for her husband's career. Once the children were a little older, Kennedy's thoughts turned to art. She can't exactly pin down the impulse that propelled her to it in middle age.
"I guess I just really wanted to do it," she says thoughtfully.
She started taking classes here and there. When the Kennedys moved to Tucson in the early '60s for Jim's health--he had emphysema--Barbara Kennedy began studying with Hazel Archer at the Tucson Museum of Art School. Archer had trained under the late Josef Albers, abstractionist of color, and Kennedy in turn went through the Albers color exercises under Archer's direction. These rigorous lessons teach students a whole host of color principles and the materials they require were prescient.
"You did it with paper, not paint," Kennedy explains. "It trained me in my favorite thing, color, the thing I do best."
Kennedy also studied art off and on at the University of Arizona, and participated in lively discussion groups and critique sessions with other Tucson artists. After her husband died, she taught art at Green Fields Country Day School, where she became friends with the young Jim Waid, now a critically acclaimed painter, who was working as a bus driver. Nowadays, the gregarious Kennedy still holds weekly figure drawing sessions at her midtown home with other artists.
"I don't have a model yet for this week," she worries.
But she's been forced away from her great love, handmade paper. The huge vats of dye are too tough to handle, the buckets of water too heavy for octogenarian hands to carry. And breast cancer struck Kennedy this spring.
Still, she has no intention of giving up art. She's made a delicious switch to pastels, a medium she can manage easily and still get the rich color she loves. Luckily, all the years of diligent papermaking have served her in good stead. Asked if she has any paper left over, she laughs her hearty laugh. "Do I?" she asks back, and adds dryly, "I have." So Kennedy is now pioneering a brand-new pastel-and-paper mixed medium.
"Pears," a gorgeous little still life in rich purple, green and orange pastels, has bits of paper incorporated here and there, a patch of crumpled green forming a shadow on a pear, some wrinkled purple pushing the work toward abstraction.
Peering at the piece on the Tohono Chul gallery wall, Kennedy says, "Pastels and paper go well together. I began doing these still life things with paper and they turned into something no one has ever done. What the paper does to the drawing just adds a dimension. It comes alive. It's not like anything else."
Barbara Kennedy: Color and Paper continues through July 17 at Tohono Chul Park Gallery, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte. Gallery hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Requested donation is $2. For more information call 575-8468.
Cutline: No longer able to perform the labor-intensive art of papermaking, Barbara Kennedy pioneers a brand-new pastel-and-paper mixed medium. Photo by Maria Nasif
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